Politics Magazine

The Forest for the Trees

By Maggiemcneill @Maggie_McNeill

One of the hallmarks of a panic is that you don’t realize it’s a panic when you’re in the middle of it.  -  Debbie Nathan

Dan and Fran KellerTwenty years after the end of the Satanic Panic, its last few victims are finally being released from prison and in some cases even declared innocent, an extraordinary measure because it requires an organ of the State declaring that its predecessor was not only wrong, but committed a grave injustice.  In just the past few months we’ve seen the release of the San Antonio Four and Fran and Dan Keller; only one more victim of a strictly-Satanic case remains in prison, Frank Fuster in Florida.  There were, however, other hysteria-tinged cases near the end of the panic whose prosecutors avoided “Satanic” language because they saw the writing on the wall, and some of those victims (like Joseph Allen of Ohio) are still slowly dying in cages.  From the safe distance of a generation, reporters – some of whom are young enough to have been peers of the children forced by cops, prosecutors, and other fanatics to make horrible accusations – are now writing stories confidently declaring that the ritual abuse never happened and branding the hysteria a “witch hunt”.  But while I obviously agree with them, I find it both sad and telling that not a one of these reporters so smugly declaring their predecessors gullible have dared to denounce their generation’s revival of the panic, “sex trafficking” hysteria.  Last week, Slate published a column on the Kellers (and the panic in general) entitled “The Real Victims of Satanic Ritual Abuse”, and I’d like to share an excerpt with you.  I don’t think you’ll need much imagination to see how this applies equally well to the current popular hysteria, but to help you I’ve replaced words like “Satanists” with more general terms like “conspirators” [in brackets]:

…Why did psychotherapists and investigators conclude that these fantastic allegations were true?  Because at the time, pretty much everyone else in America did…hundreds of children, usually after lengthy sessions with coercive therapists, came forward to say that they…had been [subjected to bizarre mistreatment such as being transported]…to random cities for sexual abuse, or countless other bizarre stories…Media poured attention on the claims…As televangelists prayed for deliverance from Satan’s scourge, talk show “experts” claimed that every imaginable form of abuse was happening on a massive scale in America and that [conspirators were hiding everywhere…media figures] claimed…that more than a million [villains] were plying their evil trade in America right at the very moment…[books about the panic] appeared in libraries and therapists’ offices…“It sounds laughable,” says Debbie Nathan, an investigative reporter who co-wrote Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt about the panic and is now a director for the National Center for Reason and Justice… “Children symbolize the good things about culture, the innocence and purity, the future of the culture,” says Nathan.  When a culture feels under threat in some way, fear and anxiety focus on the safety of children…The fear…was perpetuated by both ends of the political spectrum…Most if not all of those involved believed they were acting in the best interests of the children—which meant that any healthy skepticism was interpreted as anti-child.  But extensive investigations revealed little to no truth to the…panic…Michelle RemembersEven so, people still believed…[“experts”]…testified that [organized sexual victimizers] are real, that they are widespread…Common sense and level-headed investigation would have found [these] claims incredible if…panic hadn’t lent a “distorted lens of hysteria” to the picture…

I look forward to reading articles like this about “sex trafficking” hysteria in the late 2030s (there’s a fair chance I’ll still be around; I’d be in my early 70s), but it’s a safe bet that the reporters mocking or marveling at it will be just as oblivious to the absurdity of whatever moral panic is going on then as today’s reporters are to the absurdity of “sex trafficking”.


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